Fat Possum Records have always skated on the fringes of blues and in the wake of the Strokes invasion, garage rock acts such as The Black Keys, 20 Miles and Thee Shams have dominated the independent label’s roster in recent years. Keeping with their tradition of signing unlikely suspects, Fat Possum signed the Cincinnati based Heartless Bastards in 2004.
Like other bands on the labels roster, Heartless Bastards play a minimal style of rock mixed with a pinch of blues and a heavy helping of attitude. The trio’s debut, Stairs and Elevators, has shot them into the national spotlight with write-ups in Rolling Stone and a recent spot on NPR. Lead by twenty-seven year old singer/songwriter/guitarist Erika Weenerstrom, Heartless bastards defies comparisons with their label-mates as Weenerstrom howls with fury to impassionedly written lyrics.
Raised in Dayton Ohio, with her brother by their single mother, Erika found comfort in singing. “I have told people that I wanted to be a singer since I was old enough to think about doing anything,” says Erika. “I might have been three. I don’t remember, but even though I told everybody I was going to be a singer I didn’t actually try to, or know if I could till maybe 10 years later.
Even then I wasn’t classically trained or anything. I was in choir in school like a zillion other kids. I didn’t have much confidence so I just sort of blended in to the background. I had friend years later that pushed me to put some power behind my voice and let it all out. I have no idea why I’ve always wanted to sing the feeling just always been there.”
After dropping out of high school Erika hung around Dayton playing here guitar and working odd jobs. Here first band had no name and played the same song over and over. At age 22, Erika headed out to Cincinnati where she met bass player Mike Lamping and began playing as the Heartless Bastards.
“Heartless Bastards is the original name of the band. Mike lamping and I were at a bar in Dayton, OH and we were playing one of those computer trivia games that sit on the bar. One of the questions was “What is the name of Tom Petty’s backing band?”, and Heartless Bastards was one of the wrong answers.
We just thought it was really funny, and it stuck with us,” said Weenerstrom. Soon after naming the band they were joined by drummer Kevin Vaughn. From the get go, Heartless Bastards played an uncomplicated mix of rock, blues, garage, and punk. “Some of the things I’ve listened to over the years are The Pixies, The Breeders, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, GBV, Boss Hog, JSBX, Wire, Led Zeppelin, Stones, Flaming Lips, My Bloody Valentine, and Mazzy Star to name just a few,” said Weenerstrom.
With the line-up complete, the Heartless Bastards began playing regular gigs in Cincinnati and Dayton. The group recorded a five song EP which Erika would pass out for free. “Yes. I passed them out to everybody I thought might be into it. The
response was great,” said Erika. The band was gaining notoriety and opening for national acts in their home state.
One such act was the Black Keys. “Fat Possum became aware of us through Patrick Carney from the Black keys. We played at a club in Akron called The Lime Spider there were only around 5 people there. Patrick walked in a little bit into our set. We played a show with the Black keys several months before so i had met him once, and I went up to say hey. We ended up hanging out drinking for a bit. I didn’t know he was going to recommend us to Fat Possum,” says Erika.
However, the deal to sign with the label almost never happened. “Several weeks passed and one day when I came home from work Mike Laming asked me why I didn’t tell him Fat Possum had been emailing. Hotmail had started putting unrecognized email in the junk bin. He had been emailing for several weeks, and calling my old telephone number that was printed on the EP,” said Weenerstrom.
Matthew Johnson, the labels founder, invited the group to New York for some recording time. “We ended up going into a studio to record and play some songs so Matthew could hear us live. We were only in there a couple of hours. Most of it didn’t end up on the album,” said Erika. Impressed by what he heard, Johnson signed the group to a contract.
Recorded live in the studio, Heartless Bastards debut, Stairs and Elevators was released on February 22, 2005. While the disc wasn’t an overnight sensation, it did garner some nice press. “Our reviews and response have been unexpected. We learned a lot of things in the process of making this album, including what not to do. We were very surprised by the positive reviews,” said Erika. Lyrically, the songs on the record are intense and at times melancholy.
“I don’t know where the inspiration comes when I write a song. I just write it and when it’s done people say it sounds like something, said Weenerstrom, “I am a fan of great lyricists like Bob Dylan, but that’s a pretty high bar. I don’t really try to write like anybody. I just write how I feel.”
Heartless Bastards have an unrelenting tour schedule in support of Stairs and Elevators. “Our tours have been great. We had a really good response from the audience too. Our last tour we were on our own, and the album had been able to reach a lot more ears since the last time we were in the cities. We had a lot of people come out to shows to support us. It was a good feeling. It amazed me that some people drove really long distances to see us,” said Erika, “We were all committed to the time it takes to tour. We also share a similar sense of humor, which really helps when you’re on the road a lot.”
The band played the annual Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tennessee this year along side the likes of the Black Crowes, Widespread Panic, John Mayer and Herbie Hancock. “Bonnaroo was a lot of fun. We arrived on my birthday, and celebrated with a lot of Jack Daniels. The Secret Machines played a great set. Our actual set the next day was okay, but there was some sort of grounding problem, and my mouth and even my teeth kept getting electrocuted by the microphone. It made it sort of hard to get into. We had a lot of response from it so I guess it wasn’t too bad,” humbly stated Erika.
Currently the band is on hiatuses where Mike works for his Father’s janitor supply company while Kevin picks up the occasional night shift at his old job delivering pizza. Heartless Bastards are going back in the studio to work on their follow-up with Patrick from the Black Keys producing. Then they will hit the road for an extensive tour this fall.